Joe Biden takes helm with promise of 'uniting' a divided America; Kamala Harris scripts history

Biden's inauguration came at a time of national tumult and uncertainty, a ceremony of resilience as the hallowed American democratic rite unfurled at a US Capitol battered by an insurrectionist siege just two weeks ago

FP Staff January 21, 2021 01:47:31 IST
Joe Biden takes helm with promise of 'uniting' a divided America; Kamala Harris scripts history

US president Joe Biden (right) with US vice president Kamala Harris (left) at the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol. AP

Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, with his inauguration ceremony ending without any trace of violence feared after the US Capitol siege by pro-Trump rioters just two weeks ago. There were a few scattered arrests, but no serious disruptions in the city during Biden's inauguration ceremony.

The chilly Washington morning was dotted with snow flurries, but the sun emerged just before Biden took the oath of office, the quadrennial ceremony persevering even though it was encircled by security forces evocative of a war zone and devoid of crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

History was created on many counts on Wednesday as Kamala Harris shattered racial and gender barriers by becoming the first woman, the first woman of colour, the first Black person, and the first South Asian to be Vice President of the United States. Also, this was the first time, when the procession to the White House was replaced with a “virtual parade” due to the pandemic that has killed millions worldwide.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump, squeezed in some last minute presidential pardons before flying off to Florida well ahead of the inaugural ceremony, breaching a tradition that has previously been dishonoured only thrice.

Biden takes the helm of a deeply divided America 

Unity, racial justice, and democracy were some of the central themes of Biden's inaugural address as he took the helm of a deeply divided nation and inherited a confluence of crises arguably greater than any faced by his predecessors.

"Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause — the cause of democracy. The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We've learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed," he said in his inaugural address.

“The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious and democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed," Biden said.

"This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. A day in history and hope, of renewal and resolve.”

"Just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground, it did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow, not ever, not ever.”

He also spoke of the wide political divide that has emerged in the US, claiming that his soul lies in uniting the nation. He also promised to fight for the rights of all, irrespective of the divide of "Red versus Blue".

"Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation," he said.

"Uniting to fight the foes we face. Anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things," he added.

He also thanked his predecessors and acknowledged the responsibility that comes with the office he assumed.

"I have just taken a sacred oath each of those patriots taken. The oath first sworn by Washington. But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On we, the people, who seek a more perfect union. This is a great nation. We are good people," Biden said.

And then he pivoted to challenges ahead, acknowledging the surging virus that has claimed more than 4 lakh lives in the United States. Biden looked out over a capital city dotted with empty storefronts that attest to the pandemic’s deep economic toll and where summer protests laid bare the nation’s renewed reckoning on racial injustice.

“We have much to do in this winter of peril, and significant possibilities: much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain,” Biden said.

"Few people in our nation’s history have more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now,” he added.

Biden, in his third run for the presidency, staked his candidacy less on any distinctive political ideology than on galvanising a broad coalition of voters around the notion that Trump posed an existential threat to American democracy. Biden did not mention Trump by name in the early moments of his inaugural address but alluded to the rifts his predecessor had helped create.

“I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality of racism, nativism, fear, demonisation that have long torn us apart,” Biden said.

“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward and we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

Biden came to office with a well of empathy and resolve born by personal tragedy as well as a depth of experience forged from more than four decades in Washington. At age 78, he was the oldest president inaugurated.

He has pushed an ambitious first 100 days agenda that includes a push to speed up the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass a $1.9 trillion virus relief package. On Day One, he’ll also send an immigration proposal to Capitol Hill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.

He also planned a 10-day blitz of executive orders on matters that don’t require congressional approval — a mix of substantive and symbolic steps to unwind the Trump years. Among the planned steps: rescinding travel restrictions on people from several predominantly Muslim countries; rejoining the Paris climate accord; issuing a mask mandate for those on federal property; and ordering agencies to figure out how to reunite children separated from their families after crossing the border.

Trump gives inauguration a miss

Flouting tradition, Donald Trump departed Washington on Wednesday morning ahead of the inauguration rather than accompany his successor to the Capitol.

Though three other former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama — gathered to watch the ceremonial transfer of power, Trump, awaiting his second impeachment trial, instead flew to Florida after stoking grievance among his supporters with the lie that Biden’s win was illegitimate.

“So just a goodbye. We love you," Trump told supporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland where he walked across a red carpet and boarded Air Force One to head to Florida.

"We will be back in some form.”

Trump departed office as the only president ever impeached twice and with millions more out of work than when he was sworn in and 4 lakh dead from the coronavirus. Under his watch, Republicans lost the presidency and both chambers of Congress. He will be forever remembered for inciting Capitol's insurrection.

Trump never conceded the election, declined to attend the inauguration, upended the tradition of sending a government plane to bring the president-elect to Washington, and didn’t extend the usual invitation to welcome his successor to the White House before the swearing-in ceremony.

However, CBS Evening News reported that the one tradition Trump did honour is leaving a note for his successor in the Oval Office. The news channel reported that GOP leader Kevin McCarthy encouraged Trump to leave a letter to Biden in the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, a request to which he complied.

CNN reported that Trump watched the inaugural livestream onboard Air Force One, while on his way to Florida.

Without mentioning Biden's name, Trump wished the new administration great luck and success, which he said would be made easier because he had laid “a foundation".

“I will always fight for you," he told the crowd. “I will be watching. I will be listening.”

However, before he bid goodbye to Washington, Trump eked out a few presidential pardons in his final hours in the office. He pardoned former chief strategist Steve Bannon in the final hours of his White House term as part of a flurry of clemency action that benefited more than 140 people, including rap performers, ex-members of Congress, and other allies of him and his family.

The last-minute clemency, announced after midnight on Wednesday, follows separate waves of pardons over the past month for Trump associates convicted in the FBI’s Russia investigation as well as for the father of his son-in-law.

Trump did not pardon himself, despite speculation that he would, in the face of potential federal investigations. He had previously asserted that he had the authority to do so. He also did not pardon his children or his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

The final list was full of more conventional candidates whose cases had been championed by criminal justice activists. Even so, the names of prominent Trump allies nonetheless stood out.

Trump’s second impeachment trial could start as early as this week. That could test the ability of the Senate, poised to come under Democratic control, to balance impeachment proceedings with confirmation hearings and votes on Biden’s Cabinet choices.

Kamala Harris shatters glass ceiling

Harris broke the barrier Wednesday that has kept men at the top ranks of American power for more than two centuries when she took the oath to hold the nation's second-highest office.

The moment was steeped in history and significance in more ways than one. She was escorted to the podium by Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, the officer who single-handedly took on a mob of Trump supporters as they tried to breach the Senate floor during the Capitol insurrection that sought to overturn the election results.

The inauguration activities included nods to her history-making rise and her personal story.

Harris used two Bibles to take the oath, one that belonged to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights icon whom Harris often cites as inspiration, and Regina Shelton, who helped raise Harris during her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. The drumline from Harris' alma mater, Howard University, joined the presidential escort.

After the ceremony, she and Emhoff escorted former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, out of the Capitol, a gesture that would normally be performed by the incoming and outgoing presidents, but Trump did not attend the inauguration. Harris, Pence, and their spouses spoke for several minutes before the Pences departed.

To celebrate the occasion, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the nation’s oldest sorority for Black women, which Harris joined at Howard University, declared Wednesday as Soror Kamala D Harris Day. Members of the sorority watching the celebrations across the country were clad in pearls, as was Harris, and the sorority's pink and green colors.

Harris — the child of immigrants, a stepmother of two and the wife of a Jewish man — moves into the vice presidency just four years after she first came to Washington as a senator from California, where she'd served as attorney general and as San Francisco's district attorney.

She had expected to work with a White House run by Hillary Clinton, but President Donald Trump's victory quickly scrambled the nation's capital and set the stage for the rise of a new class of Democratic stars.

After Harris' own presidential bid fizzled, her rise continued when Biden chose her as his running mate last August. Harris had been a close friend of Beau Biden, his elder son, and a former Delaware attorney general who died in 2015 of cancer.

With inputs from agencies

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